How would you like to be an eponym?

I suppose it would depend on how you came to be eponymous. Some people have diseases named after them because they identified them (Down, Parkinson, et al. ad naus.); others have diseases named after them because they had them (legionnaires, for instance). Some people have forms of humour named after them because they inspired them (Spooner); some have forms of humour named after them because they created them.

In this last set belongs a certain Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who, as a British schoolboy, penned a little loose-rhythm quatrain:

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

(Was not fond of was later revised to Abominated.) He subsequently penned a number of others on the same model. Another example:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”

I think you can see the model. The first line is someone’s name (typically someone famous). This sets a pattern of usually two stressed syllables per line, but that is very loosely handled. The poem has two rhyming couplets, and tosses in some biographical detail about the person (Bentley’s books of clerihews include Biography for Beginners (1905), More Biography (1929), and Baseless Biography (1939)). It is important that the poem be amusing!

We note that the poems are not called bentleys. That would sound rather posh, and in particular would associate them with expensive cars typically driven by old-money types of people. (Even in Toronto, where Jaguars are a common sight and Lamborghinis can be seen driving by on infrequent occasion – and of course BMWs are more common than dirt – I see only a few Bentleys a year.) They are also not called edmunds. That would have some echoes of Shakespearean characters and a few other literary presences, and at the same time would be too well-known a person name to be all that distinctive. And it can’t help that it’s a sort of blunt sound with a dull vowel in the middle.

No, they are Clerihews, the least common of his three names. Clerihew is actually a Scottish family name, and in fact I know someone who comes from that family. [See the comments below for more on its origin.] You probably do not, as it really is not a common family name (neither is Harbeck, but I must say Clerihew has a certain idiosyncrasy that Harbeck does not). It seems almost to be the name of a bird, something like a curlew or a whippoorwill or perhaps a heronshew, or some other thing such as a creature like a fitchew hiding in the greenhew. Or perhaps an architectural feature like a clerestory in some mews.

The opening cl has a crisp clarity and cleanliness, a touch of class, though perhaps clerkish. All the vowels are front vowels (although the last one moves into a /w/), so there is a brightness to it, and the wheeze or sigh of the /h/ in the middle adds a softness, as of a pale or pastel hue – or a person breathing whew or phew.

The word as a whole anagrams to whericle, which is not a word but really should be; may I suggest that we now christen it one and use it to name a clerihew-type poem featuring not a person but a place, and (since the order of the word is reversed in four pieces) with the place name at the end, not the beginning, and starting (naturally) with where:

Where is an immenser
Historical dispenser
Of cheese, stone, and hassle?
Caerphilly Castle.

Where will you traipse
Over hills of peaches and grapes,
But find no cranberry bog in?
The Okanagan.

Where did the English entrench
Use of, and resistance to, French
More than at claret tastings?
The Battle of Hastings.

Most of the other words you can find in clerihew are not particularly related: chew, while, rice, rile, where, crewel; I do think rich is semantically relevant, but it doesn’t have much of the flavour of clerihew.

The big challenge of clerihews, aside from being witty, is to find a rhyme for the name; this can be on the difficult side at times. I’ve written a few recently for friends’ names, and you can see the contortions sometimes necessary:

Arlene Prunkl
Knew a little spunk’ll
Serve you in writing
And all kinds of uniting.

Antonia Morton
Waits for men to come a-courtin’:
Be they clients, be they lovers,
She knows her way between the covers.

Paul Cipywnyk
Doesn’t settle for what he’s giv’n: ich-
thyologic or prosaic,
He’s reliably apotropaic.

Margaret Gibbs
Keeps dolls in cribs.
She sees no analogy
Between that and genealogy.

They make a fun little challenge. (I also do them on request.)

3 responses to “clerihew

  1. Margaret Gibbs (mentioned above), née Clerihew, has sent me more information on the origin of the name – she’s an expert in onomastics, especially hers. Here’s what she says:

    Although the basic name books like Black’s Surnames of Scotland or the Oxford say its origin is unknown, my brother and I both did a lot of research on it, aided by suggestions and research help from members of the Canadian Society for the Study of Names.

    You have to go back to the days when some of the Anglo-Norman knights were so bellicose that they were given land in the North of England, to keep down the Scots and to keep them out of the way of the more peaceful folk in the south. In the 12th century, the English-raised King David of Scotland was embroiled in a civil war at home and supporting his niece Matilda in England, and hired a lot of these knights to fight on his side (since they loved fighting so much they didn’t need much excuse). After they helped him win, he gave his noble mercenaries lands in Scotland, leading to French-origin clan names like Bruce and Fraser.

    My particular ancestor wasn’t a noble or a knight. He was a clerk to the about-to-become Baron Forbes (who changed his name completely to that of the territory he was granted in Aberdeenshire). This humble clerk, first name unknown, hailed originally from the town of Clarieu in the south of France, and was using the habitation name. M. Clarieu now found himself working as a clerk, using clericus as his job description. Clerks were not thick on the ground in the Highlands at the time — or anywhere much in Scotland for that matter — so the Gaelic word had been adapted from the Latin = cleriche [the ch is a Gaelic throat-clearing h]. This became a surname in the north and central Highlands, MacChleriche, a small group within the Chattan Confederation.

    You can see where this is leading. Clarieu the cleriche got his place of origin and his occupation glommed together (a highly technical word used by onomasticians 🙂 ) and his descendants, by the beginning of the 17th century had smoothed it out to Clerihew/Clarihue/Cleariheugh — I’ve found thirteen spellings so far and I’m sure there were more.

    My branch seemed to be quite picky about the Clerihew spelling, unusually so for past centuries. Edmund’s mother, whose maiden name he was given as a middle name, a common practice in the late 19th century, was my great-grandfather’s sister. The English-born Edmund and my Aberdonian grandfather Peter Clerihew were within a year of each other in age, but as far as I know the cousins never met.

    As an added note, the Globe and Mail long ago had a contest to write a clerihew and my mother won it, although I can’t recall offhand who she used as her topic. The editor of the arts section had to verify that her name was indeed Gladys Clerihew before he’d print the results of that week’s contest.

    And you said probably none of your readers would know anyone by that name? My first day in U of T library school, there were a large group of female students who had just received their BAs in the spring and then got married that summer. We were all describing our weddings and saying what our names had been before, and I said I’d had the unusual name of Clerihew “which none of you will have heard of”. One student immediately said, “No, I went to school with a girl named Margaret Clerihew.” And I said, “Then you must be from Winnipeg.” My grandfather Peter settled in Vancouver, and his older brother Alexander settled in Winnipeg (their mother’s name was Margaret and the name was used over and over in the family), and for a long time we were the only two families in Canada with that name. Alexander had nine boys, so they were all in the Winnipeg phonebook, but we stood alone in the Vancouver phonebook for years until some of the Winnipeg bunch moved out west.

  2. Auden published a collection of them called “Academic Graffiti”. They are hit-and-miss, but the best touch upon a certain profundity. From memory:

    William Blake
    Found Newton hard to take
    And was not enormously taken
    With Francis Bacon.

    Had to much to say
    He could never quite
    Leave the paper white.

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